An Occasional Ramble by the Sea
April 16, 2006
By David Helvarg
Was that a Bronx Cheer or did he just flipper me off?
While sea lions and harbor seals are considered something of an attractive nuisance along the California coast, kind of like deer in the rose garden, the return of native harbor seals to the big Oyster has excited even jaded New Yorkers. “We’ve got seals in all five boroughs. That’s cool,” Donald Moore Director of the Prospect Park Zoo in Brooklyn told the NY Times during a recent expedition off Staten Island where 20 seals were seen lazing on pilings not far from the Varrazano Narrows bridge. Last year 1,200 seals were spotted in Long Island Sound. If their Mid-Atlantic regional recovery continues we can no doubt look forward to future complaints that they’re “stealing” fish and taking over children’s beaches, complaints now common in California. I hear similar griping about Canada Geese all the time. Of course it’s easy to understand why people don’t like the northern honkers. They’re large, loud and filthy, just like our species.
Brownie (Shrimp) you’re doing a heck of a job.
“You saw ‘Forrest Gump’ well, it’s a reality,” NOAA scientist Steve Murawski told the Christian Science Monitor about a big come back of brown shrimp in the Gulf of Mexico. In the movie that suggested there’s wisdom in simple thinking (which may have impacted subsequent U.S. elections) a powerful storm comes through and revives the Texas shrimp industry. In the post-Katrina Gulf of Mexico the fact that most boats ended up on the land (and houses in the water) may have played a larger factor. With some 5,000 boats damaged or destroyed the 20 percent of the fleet still working is hauling in proportionately more shrimp, along with storm rubble, refrigerators and, in at least one case, an ATM machine. Despite massive oil spillage in the Gulf following the 2005 storm season (see Blue Notes #22 & #25) Gulf seafood continues to be rated safe for consumption. At the same time speculation I encountered along the Gulf in the wake of Katrina about whether the feds would use the destruction of the fleet as a chance to do a buyout and reduce fishing pressure is slowly evolving into a plan for a $240 million buy out and freeze on new fishing permits. Done right a buyout and recovery plan could help shrimp and their industry come back healthier than before. Given the amount of storm rubble on the sea floor the use of more sustainable butterfly dip, beam trawl, and other nets that could eliminate the massive bycatch of non-targeted species from bottom trawling would also prove a huge environmental benefit.
Of course we also need to see a commitment to wetlands restoration (not yet visible in federal recovery funding) and cleaner water.
Deep in the Harte of Texas
Nancy Rabalais, who discovered the Gulf’s Dead Zone, was one of the speakers at the Gulf of Mexico Summit in Corpus Christi, Texas March 28-30. Her Lab in Cocodrie, Louisiana took hits from both Katrina and Rita. In between storms she got out on a research cruise where she got to dive with a 7 foot alligator that had been blown 15 miles out to sea. In the murk she discovered that while Katrina had initially broken up the hypoxic (oxygen-depleted) dead zone, it had also stirred up enough sediment rich in nitrogen-heavy synthetic fertilizer to allow the dead zone to re-establish itself. My scientific conclusion – promoting monster hurricanes by overheating the oceans is an ineffective strategy for eliminating hypoxia and anoxia (Exxon-Mobil please take note).
The summit included 4 Governors from the U.S. and Mexico (two each), the head of NOAA, the U.S. Ocean Commission, and many leaders from the offshore oil industry, state and federal agencies, U.S. and Mexican labs, universities and a thin chum of activists. Among topics discussed was a Gulf of Mexico Alliance Governors’ Action Plan that the White House has pointed to as a model for regional ocean management, but that is still focused on monitoring and researching issues such as restoration of wetlands that need immediate action (preferably before the 2006 hurricane season). Not attending were 25 invited Cuban scientists who knew they couldn’t get State Department visas.
I was very curious about the Summit’s sponsor the year-old $46 million Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies. Operating out of a sleek new headquarters building overlooking the brown water of the Gulf, the Institute combines science and policy, working with marine experts from the U.S., Mexico and Cuba (its 3 sail logo represents the 3 coastal nations of the Gulf). Among its advisory council is Blue Frontier advisor David Guggenheim who is using his scientific experience and sub-piloting skills to help explore and conserve the little known Gulf Coast of Cuba.
Urban Seawalls made of Malls
While in Corpus I also got to meet and eat with a couple of Surfrider activists including Coastal Bend Chapter President Neil McQueen (stay away from the Surf Executive Burger unless you’re really hungry). Not only are they planning a ’50 Ways to Save the Ocean’ book event with the Texas State Aquarium (awesome) but they’re fighting for the right of Texans to drive on the beach (huh?). A back step to explain – The city council is threatening to deny public access to 7200 feet of beachfront so that developers (contributors?) can build an exclusive condo-resort complex on the beach. They’re arguing this is a public good because it will increase the tax base for the city. But Surfrider has long fought for public access to our public shores that in Texas includes the right to drive your truck up the beach and have a tailgate party at your favorite surf casting spot (just don’t use the turtles as speed bumps).
A few days later I was in New Jersey for a talk at Richard Stockton College in the Pine Barrens (during NJ Water Watch’s annual Environmental Forum) for a second event sponsored by Clean Ocean Action and the Littoral Society, and also one at Monmouth University -which under its new president and former Ocean Commission member Admiral Paul Gaffney (ret.) is promising to become a center for U.S. urban coastal studies. Along with getting to kiss a dead flounder (at Clean Ocean’s Flounder Tournament), pick up some beach trash, and admire some Canada geese, I learned of the growing conflict over NJ towns like Long Branch using eminent domain to condemn existing low and middle income shorefront neighborhoods. These are being replaced not with essential public facilities (as this government power is intended), but with private Condos and hotels that also block the ocean view. If people don’t stand up for their rights as coastal citizens unique beach, port, fishing surfing and summer communities will continue to be driven to extinction as fast as finned sharks. A teacher at the Monmouth talk told me she was feeling hopeless driving past all those condos every day. I suggested rather than hopeless she should feel outraged and turn that outrage into seaweed activism. With 566 townships in NJ that’s a lot of zoning board meetings to attend.
Mahalo to a journalistic Wahine
Props to reporter Zenaida Serrano of the Honolulu Advertiser for an excellent piece on our ’50 Ways to Save the Ocean’ book with lots of local examples of citizen action for the sea. Check it out. LINK
Aw Shuck #2
“The most comprehensive account available of the state of our nation’s oceans, and the best reporting about how they got that way.” – Bill McKibben.
That’s one of the nicer blurbs attached to the new and updated ‘Blue Frontier – Dispatches from America’s Ocean Wilderness’ just out. The 2006 version of the book includes 1/3 new material on ocean politics and commissions, marine wilderness, climate, port security, the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons and my encounter with a sarcastic fringehead. So if you’ve read it you may want to reread it, or if you’re one of 299,985,000 Americans who haven’t read it yet, please do so. www.bluefrontierdispatches.com
Remember, the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, but Blue Notes is free if you’d like to pass it on or post it on your website.